Fr. Michael J. Buckley, SJ, a Jesuit of lasting legacy for his contributions to studies in theology, the origins of modern atheism, the mutually beneficial relations between science and religion, and Jesuit spirituality and education, died July 25, 2019, following a long illness. He was 87 years of age and was a member of the Society of Jesus for almost seventy years. His work was especially noted for an intense and critical alignment of rigorous theological inquiry with in-depth studies in Christian spirituality.
Fr. Buckley was born on October 12, 1931 into a large family. His father was an Army colonel and the family moved often. After graduating from high school, including a stint at Yokohama High school in Japan, he entered the Society of Jesus in August 1949. He served as a Jesuit scholastic at Bellarmine College Preparatory and later studied philosophy at St. Michael’s Institute in Spokane. After theological studies at the Jesuit’s Alma College, he was ordained to the priesthood on June 8, 1962, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. From there he was accepted for doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, studying under Richard McKeon in the Committee for the History of Ideas, where he finished his work in three years’ time. His dissertation led to his first book, Motion and Motion’s God: Thematic Variations in Aristotle, Cicero, Newton and Hegel (Princeton, 1971). This laid the foundation for further works on atheism, including his magnum opus, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale, 1987). He also authored several papers on the relationship between science and religion. These works complement treatments of Catholic and ecclesial themes as displayed in Papal Primacy and the Episcopate: Towards a Relational Understanding (Herder, 1998), and The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom (Georgetown, 1998). In all, he was the author of seven major books, and scores of articles, both scholarly and popular.
A gifted teacher greatly devoted to his students, Fr. Buckley had faculty appointments at the Gregorian University in Rome and the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (where he also served as Rector); and subsequently, positions at the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, and Santa Clara University. He was also a lifetime fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. At Boston College, where he was Director of the Jesuit Institute and Canisius Professor of Theology, he worked closely with graduate students in forming a community of intellectual, spiritual and societal commitments. His associations with Santa Clara University were deep, having received his first theological degrees there (1963), serving as Visiting Scholar (1981–1982), Bannan Scholar (1982–1983), and Bea Professor of Theology (2006–2011). He also served as Trustee of the University (1979–1987).
Additionally, Fr. Buckley served at various times as chair of the Jesuit International Theological Commission, the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the executive director of the Committees on Doctrine and Pastoral Research and Practices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He served on many other boards through the years, including that of the eminent Jesuit journal, Theological Studies.
A “Jesuit’s Jesuit” with an in-depth command of Jesuit historical sources and Ignatian spirituality, Fr. Buckley was elected to three General Congregations of the Society of Jesus. At the 32nd General Congregation, he was instrumental in the writing of Decree 4, “Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice,” which was key to a reorientation of the Jesuits toward service of the poor and more forthright stances with regard to social justice. He also helped establish the doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, in advanced studies in spirituality. A highly sought spiritual director and confessor, Fr. Buckley inaugurated a program of Spiritual Exercises for the bishops of the Western United States that continues to this day. His lectures on the Jesuit Constitutions, the Spiritual Exercises, and the Carmelite mystic, John of the Cross, are legendary. He was also a gifted retreat master, having given many retreats in particular to Carmelite nuns.
A man of intense faith, Fr. Buckley was known for his deep love for his family, a ready recall of quotations from Aeschylus through Shakespeare and Joyce, an instant sense of humor, and an eagerness for life, always ready to pitch himself into the next project.
Survived by twelve nieces and nephews, Fr. Buckley was predeceased by parents, Colonel Michael Buckley, Jr. and Eleanor Fletcher Buckley, and by five siblings. His brother, Thomas Buckley (d. 2017) was also a Jesuit priest and scholar.
A vigil service will be held at Mission Santa Clara de Asís on the campus of Santa Clara University on Thursday, August 1, at 7 p.m. A funeral Mass will held in Mission Santa Clara de Asís on Friday, August 2, at 10 a.m.
Remembrances may made to the Michael and Eleanor Buckley Scholarship Fund at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, 1735 LeRoy Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709; or to Jesuits West, Office of Advancement, P.O. Box 68, Los Gatos, CA 95301-0068, marked for the education of younger Jesuits or for the care for the retired and infirm.